International relations | Poland

Poland goes West

Poland’s foreign policy is steadily turning towards the West. Its relationship with its eastern neighbours is complicated - especially with Russia
Five men in dark suits and white shirts stand diagonally behind each other with their arms hanging down. They smile and look past the camera on the left.

US President Joe Biden (left) and Poland's President Andrzej Duda (2nd from left) together with other heads of states and governments at the NATO summit in Brussels, 2021

For the past three decades, Poland has been largely busy with “returning” to the West and “fleeing” from the East. Since the fall of the authoritarian regime in 1989, this has been the paradigm of foreign and security policy.

The integration of European and transatlantic structures was supposed to usher in a higher standard of living, security, and, above all, protection from the East, which was seen as synonymous with despotism, poverty and aggression on the part of the Kremlin.

Poles are among those in Europe who trust Russia the least. To understand this, just pick up a history book and examine the last 250 years, during which Russia repeatedly attacked and dominated Poland. For this reason, strengthening Nato's eastern flank has been a major goal of Polish security policy until today.

In the Polish imagination, however, Russia was the “other”, and distancing oneself from it was a way of strengthening the Poles' European identity. “How can one distance oneself from Russia without changing one's geographical position?” pondered the eminent literary scholar Przemysław Czapliński, who analysed Polish literature and imagination. “The discursive practice of distancing ourselves from Russia reinforced the belief that if we distinguish ourselves from the East, we will move closer to the West,” Czapliński elaborated.

Russia has always served as a warning to Poles: if you don’t pass the test of belonging to Europe, you will end up like the Russians - poor and beaten by the power apparatus.

To some, Russia even appears as something like a Polish Mr. Hyde: the patriarchal part of our soul that we have to fight in order not to return to the East. In other words, the Polish version of Western Orientalism.

“Amid repeated protests on the Maidan, Polish citizens and politicians organised humanitarian aid and travelled to Ukraine to join the protests”

All the emotions described above have given rise to an obsessive perception of the threat posed by Russia. And Polish policy towards its two eastern neighbours, Ukraine and Belarus, can largely be seen as a product of its fear of the Kremlin.

The greatest influence on the Polish government’s strategy towards the East was a movement called “Promethean”, named after the ancient Titan Prometheus. In the 20th century, Prometheism (in Polish: “Prometeizm”) appeared in many guises, but there was always a fundamental conviction that Warsaw had to support the independence of Ukraine and Belarus in its own interest to assert itself against Russia’s geopolitical expansion of influence. 

The two neighbouring states were viewed as a buffer to Russian aggressions. At the same time, prometheism was an anti-imperial strategy based on the view that one had to support all peoples and measures that weakened Soviet power.

Poland benefited from the “geopolitical window of opportunity” after 1989 because it managed to break away from Russia and join NATO. Ukraine, on the other hand, is still fighting for independence and paying a high price for it.

But the common experience of the “struggle with communism” and the cultural closeness have resulted in a feeling of brotherhood between Poland and Ukraine. Amid repeated protests on the Maidan and other Ukrainian squares, Polish citizens and politicians not only organised humanitarian aid, but also travelled to Ukraine themselves and joined the protests.

For many years, Warsaw played the role of European ambassador to Kiev. This “caring” attitude also fitted in with Poland's ambitions to become a major regional power. However, these patterns of thinking began to crumble when the PiS party came to power under Jarosław Kaczyński in 2006.

“The current PiS government understands its sovereignty as maximising the instruments of power by the state government” 

How can a medium-sized state protect itself from a more powerful one? Kaczyński’s predecessors relied on the European Union and NATO. Membership in these organisations alone was supposed to deter the Kremlin from attacking, while at the same time it allowed for greater influence on international events.

Poland tried to deepen relations with the European Union and its eastern partners as much as possible. The best example is the EU's programme of support for the “Eastern Partnership”, which includes the states that used to belong to the USSR and which are now trying to escape Moscow's sphere of influence.

The current PiS government, however, has adopted a much more critical stance towards the European Union. It understands its sovereignty as maximising the instruments of power by the state government.

Instead of the EU, Jarosław Kaczyński’s team relied heavily on bilateral relations with Donald Trump to guarantee its security. Now Trump is gone, and relations with Biden are cooler.

Previous liberal governments, for example under Donald Tusk, tried to reset relations with Russia, for which they were criticised by the then opposition PiS party.

Kaczyński’s verbal attacks against both Putin and Tusk flared after the plane catastrophe in Smolensk, Russia. On the plane were senior state officials, all of whom perished - among them the then Polish president and twin brother of Jarosław Kaczyński, Lech Kaczyński.

Finally, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 put an end to these Polish-Russian experiments. The rhetoric of the current PiS government is now much more hostile towards Russia than that of its predecessors. On the other hand, some of the PiS’s actions, which reflect the party's ideological character, may be beneficial to the Kremlin.

In both Moscow and Warsaw, the governments are stirring up fear: traditional family and Christian values - so goes their narrative - are threatened by the LGBT scene, and Europe is becoming increasingly Islamised and weaker.

“Pleased with their reputation as leaders in transformation, Warsaw’s governments shared their experiences with others”

Since the PiS party has been in power, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has become less important. Many foreign policy issues have been subordinated to domestic and party interests. Relations with the Ukraine have also deteriorated. Within the PiS party, two perspectives clash: one camp is inspired by the Promethean concepts of unity against Russia described above, the other invokes a nationalist tradition that is not exactly favourable to Ukrainians.

This nationalist camp in Warsaw blames a splinter group of the Ukrainian underground for mass murders of Poles during the Second World War. The Ukrainians have responded with their own interpretation of history. The difficult and necessary conversation about historical reconciliation became an instrument in the political struggle that strengthened nationalists on both sides.

But despite this complex situation, Ukraine and Poland are united - albeit to different extents - by the threat of a (post)-imperial Russia. The annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s war in the Donbass also sparked fears of Russian aggression in Poland.

Looking at Belarus, the opposition could almost always count on Polish support. Among other things, Poland finances Belsat TV, the only television station independent of the regime.

In recent months, Poland has developed scholarship programmes for Belarusian students who were kicked out of university, it supports the Belarusian diaspora and repeatedly increases funding for aid. As a result, the Polish state faces constant accusations that it is instigating a military attack on Belarus.

For years, support for the Ukrainian and Belarusian people and the reformist efforts of the Kiev governments also formed part of Poland’s soft power.

Pleased with their reputation as leaders in transformation, Warsaw’s governments shared their own experiences and built their image on this reputation. However, there was a lack of consistency, and, after the PiS came to power, a lack of credibility.

The current government in Warsaw stands accused by various Polish and international organisations of violating the rule of law and attacking the independence of the judiciary, the media and public institutions.

This is a reason for even greater solidarity with the political prisoners in Russia and Belarus, as well as with refugees from the Donbass and with the families of the missing Crimean Tatars.

Translated by Joanna Manc and Jess Smee